How writers make sense of a world in lockdown

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Pictures: Pexels.com

A confessional booth

My first notebook was a present from my mother for my ninth birthday. It had a tiny brass lock and key. This small book with dainty blue flowers on its cover became a private container for my innermost thoughts.

From my first tween fight with my mother (Dear Diary, I hate her!! I HATE her!!!!!!) to the deep questions that concerned me in my teens (How can I fatten up my skinny legs? Will eating sunflower seeds help my breasts grow?); from the throes of first love and dating in my early twenties, to my first marriage (What am I doing that makes him so angry? How can I change myself?), my diary became a confessional booth.

And then, towards the end of the eight-year marriage, the pages became a space for a timid yet growing sense of possibility (I am loved. I am lovely. What do I want to do with my life now?).

And in the past 15 years my diary has listened as I ventured out into the online dating world, met my second husband, fell in love and became a mother.

Time travel

Noting my insights and emotions is not merely a tool for making sense of the past and sinking into the present. It’s also a way of starting a conversation with the future.

Noting my insights and emotions is not merely a tool for making sense of the past and sinking into the present. It’s also a way of starting a conversation with the future. As I write, I picture my future self reading my words, in a different world years ahead. This reassures me and reminds me that things always change. It’s like putting a message in a bottle and sending it across the seas of time where I stand waiting on the shores of a world that doesn’t yet exist.

Lockdown diaries

Just after President Ramaphosa announced one of the strictest lockdowns in the world (no leaving your home except for essential shopping and medical reasons; no going out for physical exercise; and no alcohol or tobacco) I would put down the book I’d been reading to our son, tuck him in, then settle back into the armchair to write my daily lockdown diary on Facebook. I did this every night for the first 35 days of our South African lockdown.

As my son turned and mumbled in his sleep, I’d stare unseeing at Lego Star Wars spaceships, Minecraft posters and a crumpled sock on the floor, and sift through words to frame my day.

We’re all aware that we are living in a historic period. A diary for me was a way of recording what the early days of lockdown meant for our little family, as well as creating a record for those who come after. I pictured my son’s curly-haired little girl asking me, "Gran, what did you do during the terrible pandemic of 2020?"

As a Facebook friend, Sarah Nishina, said, "I’m not keeping a diary but I think we should. Even a photo diary. This will go down in history with the Spanish Plague and the Great Depression. It’s good to have memories for the future."

It’s for this reason that other lockdown diaries became so intriguing. It was fascinating to read how other writers and creatives were experiencing this crazy year.

One of the diaries I read every day during our hard lockdown was that of Ronald Wohlman, a quirky ad man living in New York. Because his city was at the epicentre of it all, I was able to get some insight into what we were heading towards: the case numbers going up daily, the sirens, the fear this microscopic intruder introduced to simple acts like going shopping and walking the dog. Here’s an extract (and a taste of his self-deprecating humour):

On top of Corona, I now have writer’s block to worry about. It’s not that I’m losing steam, it’s more like I’m losing my mind. And anyway … who the hell wants to hear about how I ate a whole $5 avo on my own? On three slices of toast. I’m not exactly spoiled for material. Even Anne Frank was challenged for material, and in the unabridged version of her diaries you'll find a chapter she wrote on discovering her vagina. I’d be lucky if I can get a sentence out on my penis.

(Ronald recently published a book of his hilarious diary entries: Never take a hypochondriac to a pandemic, available on Amazon.)

Memory bank

Later, I messaged some of my favourite diarists and asked them about this daily habit. As Ronald said, "A diary, especially for someone with a lousy memory, is a great way to record how you handled the great pandemic of 2020. It’s a terrific memory bank."

Author, publisher and literary critic Karina Szczurek has been keeping her diary for the past eight months. She intends to print out her beautifully named Oysterhood Diaries and have them bound into a book, just for herself. This is such a lovely way of honouring this extremely challenging time.

Another author who has kept a regular lockdown diary is Joanne Hichens. She said, "I’ve always shared rather personal stuff on Facebook, so I continued in that vein. I have always wanted to write ‘from the heart’ … so whatever I felt was authentic and genuine to me, about lockdown, would hopefully have resonance with others … My memoir of loss and longing, titled ‘Death and the After Parties’ (is out now) so I am very much in the habit of looking to my own life to find material to explore."

A frame for each day

The knowledge that I was going to post a diary entry that night provided a frame for the day. It offered a container for all the little moments and feelings, and a lens through which I’d observe and sift through the moments, deciding what to highlight and what to leave out.

The knowledge that I was going to post a diary entry that night provided a frame for the day. It offered a container for all the little moments and feelings, and a lens through which I’d observe and sift through the moments, deciding what to highlight and what to leave out.

Several Facebook creatives I spoke to emphasised the importance of diary writing. As Adrie Swart, an artist, described, "My journal is my sanity, my clarity, my brain cleanser and my safe space." Kathleen O’Connor Thompson, a teacher who sent daily prompts to her students during lockdown, said, "Documenting an experience makes it valuable, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. It acknowledges that all emotions and responses are valid." Annelize Becht, a dancer and artist, wrote, "Writing is a way to acknowledge and accept but not wallow in what we’re feeling."

Diary as a spiritual practice

Keeping a daily diary can bring in a spiritual element to the act of living. It makes me aware that I am not only living my story, but also telling it. I am the main protagonist and the storyteller. I keep an ear (and an open notebook) out for funny moments, listening more acutely to what Jack says (and he says a lot!) so that I can write about it later.

Because I felt cut off from my community and my writing tribe in lockdown, I decided to post my daily entries on my FB page. I needed the engagement that social media offers, rather than pages of private self-absorption in my written diary that no one would ever see. I wanted to share my own experience of this in the hope that there was a sense of commonality, because I trusted that the mood swings and daily struggles were not unique to me.

As Joanne said, "I write to explore my own life and emotions and response to what happens in my life, but I do like to have a feedback loop. It keeps me on the right track, but also inspires me to write more. However, I know some pieces will have more resonance than others, some fall by the wayside or go unread, and that is something I accept. Ultimately the writer is alone."

Reading the lockdown diaries of social media friends gave me enormous comfort during those early days of shock, those many sleepless nights of worry and fear. Karina Szczurek posts her blog diary every night at around the same time. Reading it became a treasured part of my bedtime ritual.

Reading the lockdown diaries of social media friends gave me enormous comfort during those early days of shock, those many sleepless nights of worry and fear. Karina Szczurek posts her blog diary every night at around the same time. Reading it became a treasured part of my bedtime ritual. I would sit in the armchair in Jack’s room as he fell asleep and read her nightly entry. Her gentle and honest ruminations on food, routine, worries, and rays of light that came through literature and art calmed me and reminded me I was not alone.

Personal/public

I needed the call-and-answer that social media offers. I felt energised by those blue thumbs-ups and those red hearts. I savoured the comments and the warm glow that comes when my writing (which is how I personally make art in the world) is seen, heard and appreciated.

The downside of this social media engagement was that on some days I’d feel a tad self-conscious in my writing. I worried that the posts might get boring, or worse, sound preachy or sentimental. But as Ronald assured me, "The last thing you need right now is added pressure. So please just write with reckless abandon."

So now I duck below the noisy doubts and insecurities, like sinking beneath the bath water to dull the outside clatter, and come back to the truth of what things mean for me. And I write that.

You can follow the writers mentioned above here:

Joanne Hichens: https://joannehichens.com

Karina Szczurek: https://karinamagdalena.com

Ronald Wohlman: http://www.ronaldwohlman.com

 

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